Let's move on to 1940. President Roosevelt declares rubber to be a "strategic and critical material," something the Germans found out the hard way during the First World War. The president makes this declaration because the German U-boats are blocking Atlantic shipping lanes, and there is a fear that the Japanese will stop shipment from the Asian rubber plantations. In June of 1940, the Rubber Reserve Company, or RRC, is founded to stockpile rubber for the likely chance of being unable to buy rubber. The RRC also has control of the production of the raw materials needed to make synthetic rubbers, the production of the rubber, and the fabrication of products from the rubber. The patents and rights to these processes are given to the RRC through an information sharing agreement between Standard Oil, Goodyear, B. F. Goodrich, Firestone, and U. S. Rubber. This is an historic agreement. It is the first time that this many American companies agreed to share their trade secrets.
On December 7, 1941, their planning pays off when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and cut the United States off from 9/10 of the rubber producing countries of the world. In early 1942, the American Synthetic Rubber Research Program begins. Along with the major rubber producing companies, 11 university research groups, including Carl "Speed" Marvel at the University of Illinois, Izaak "Piet" Kolthoff at the University of Minnesota, and W. D. Harkins and Morris Kharasch of the University of Chicago, join the effort to make synthetic rubber work. Their goal, set by the RRC, is to set up four plants which will produce 30,000 tons each of Buna-S type rubber per year. By the end of 1942, the four plants are up and running, but falling short of their intended goal. By the end of 1943, 15 plants were in operation, and supply finally begins to meet demand.
The research focus during the war is on incremental improvement of existing processes. For example, if the rubber is allowed to polymerize till no monomer was left, long, branched molecules are produced, which gel and make the rubber difficult to process. To solve this problem, the reaction is only allowed to proceed to 72% conversion and a mercapten modifier, a chain-transfer agent, is used to control molecular weight.
It is also discovered that the polymerizations have an induction period which varied from batch to batch. An induction period is where nothing seems to be happening, then, all of the sudden, the reaction takes off. The researchers at the University of Illinois find that this is due to different fatty acids present in the different soaps needed for the emulsion process. These soaps also cause the solution to foam during the recovery of the remaining monomer. This problem leads to the development of candellia wax and silicone defoamers.
The properties of the Buna-S type rubber are highly dependent on the amount of styrene in the rubber. To determine properties, it is important to know how much styrene had been incorporated. William O. Baker of the Bell Telephone Laboratories solved this problem by developing a procedure for determining the amount of styrene using the refractive index of a solution of the rubber.
Under the American Synthetic Rubber Research Program, all of the different types of synthetic rubbers get fancy, new code names, all of which start with GR, which stands for government rubber. Buna-S rubber is known as GR-S (S for styrene), Butyl rubber is called GR-I (I for isobutylene), Thiokol is called, GR-P (P for polysulfide), Buna-N is known as GR-A (a for acrylonitrile), and Neoprene is called GR-M.
The American Synthetic Rubber Research Program and the RRC succeed in producing a lot of synthetic rubber in a short amount of time, and at a very difficult time in America's history. In 1942, 3,721 tons of GR-S are produced, and that increases to 182,259 tons in 1943. In 1944, the year of peak demand, production triples to 670, 268 tons, and by 1945, production had increased to 756, 042 tons. Although this might not seem like much, but, at the time, it is a huge success. One which eventually helps the United States and it's allies to win the war.
Some call the American Synthetic Rubber Research Program a failure because more developments could have been made if the companies involved were working in competition. However, others believe that getting these companies to cooperate on such a large project in the midst of a war to produce a vital material was a success in itself. You decide.
While the American Synthetic Rubber Research Project is getting underway in 1942, some people are not intimately involved with the war effort. Her's what they are doing:
Musical lyricist, Johnny Mercer, writes the song That Old Black Magic.
The movie Casablanca, staring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, is released.
Physicist Enrico Fermi and coworkers achieve the first controlled nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago.
2. Herbert, Vernon and Attilio Bisio. Synthetic Rubber: A Project That Had to Succeed. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1985.
3. Howard, Frank A. Buna Rubber: The Birth of an Industry, D. van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1947.
4. Morris, Peter J. T. The American Synthetic Rubber Research Program. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.